Deciding to learn Spanish in Spain is one thing, the next task is choosing a city within the country. From Andalusia to Galicia, the various autonomous communities located across the nation offer something for just about everybody. With that being said, Madrid and Barcelona are undoubtedly the two most popular destinations among those arriving in Spain. The two largest cities in the country are also lifelong rivals, on and off the football pitch, each offering a completely unique experience in terms of learning Spanish.
Which city should you choose? Well that depends on exactly what you’re looking for, as the answer will not be the same for everyone. Here is a complete breakdown of the living and learning situation between Madrid and Barcelona.
Weather & Nature
The weather and overall nature of the city you choose will make a big difference because your interests ultimately are going to play a large role in your overall learning experience. Depending on your interests and the activities you wish to participate in, the general landscape and weather of a city is an important part of the selection process. While the two cities are similar, there are a few key differences to highlight here that may come down to more of your personal preference.
Madrid is located on a high plateau, landlocked in the middle of Spain, which makes its climate more extreme. In Madrid, there’s the old saying: “nueve meses de invierno, tres meses de infierno” which means “nine months of winter, three months of hell.” This pretty much sums up the local sentiment towards the weather. The summers in Madrid are very hot and dry with temperatures that regularly exceed 30 degrees celsius. In January, temperatures hover around a high of 10 degrees celsius on average and often drop below freezing. The central location also means no access to beach or nature at all. What Madrid lacks in sandy shores, however, it makes up for with its massive population, sprawling metropolis and lively street life.
The seaside location of Barcelona gives the city a climate that is much more temperate than Madrid’s throughout the year. The summer temperatures tend to hover around the 30 degree celsius mark. The winters aren’t as cold, as the average high in January is around 13 degrees celsius. Its location along the Mediterranean Sea also bodes well for surfers, kite surfers, windsurfers and beach-goers. There are a number of beaches along the coast, including the most popular Barceloneta, located within walking distance from the city centre. Fancy taking a dip in the sea between study sessions? Barcelona might be the place for you. Outdoor enthusiasts also have the nearby mountains to keep them busy with all sorts of activities.
When it comes to learning a new language, the people you interact with on a regular basis are an important aspect in the learning process. From making new friends to simply asking for directions on the street, the general attitude and personality of the locals will be instrumental in mastering the Spanish language.
The inhabitants of Madrid are known to be some of the most welcoming people in the entire world. They exhibit more of a “capital city” approach to life and won’t hesitate to help a stranger with directions or nearby recommendations. Madrid really is a place where the locals exude the traditional, laidback Spanish lifestyle, hence their reputation for being very warm, hospitable and energetic. “Si estás en Madrid, eres de Madrid” as the old saying goes, meaning “if you are in Madrid, you are from Madrid.”
Barcelona has a different vibe to it. Being a smaller city than Madrid, Barcelona still manages to receive exponentially more tourists. Sometimes it feels like foreigners outnumber the locals, especially when you’re shoulder to shoulder with backpack-laden groups of tourists on your morning walk. This is not to say that Barcelona locals aren’t friendly at all, this couldn’t be farther from the truth! They do have a reputation across Spain for being slightly more protectionist and distant than their Madrid counterparts.
Barcelona is the official capital of the autonomous community of Catalonia and the ethnic group of Catalans as reflected throughout its cuisine, culture and, of course, its language. Among locals, Catalan is the language of choice, it’s the language taught in schools and the government works fiercely to protect their unique culture heritage. Both Catalan and Castilian Spanish remain the official languages for the region and Spanish is still understood and spoken by virtually everybody, especially the younger generations.
Madrid, on the other hand, is the epitome of Spain. The Madrileño accent is often referred to as the purest form of the Spanish language, as this is the region in which it was standardized and implemented across its territories. For learners, this “neutral” accent is usually one of the easiest to learn as everything is pronounced exactly as it’s spelled–and with great pride at that. In Madrid, Spanish is the only official language of the region, making it easier to focus your learning attention.
While Madrid certainly has an advantage in this respect, plenty of students still choose to come to Barcelona to learn Spanish as well, so the bilingualism shouldn’t deter you. Just be aware of the potential challenges to this. For absolute beginners of Spanish, it can become very confusing since Catalan is very similar. Nearly all of the signs, menus, websites and product labels will appear in Catalan rather than Spanish, and adding a new dimension to your learning experience can be very confusing. If you want to simply focus on Castilian Spanish through and through, Madrid may be the better option here.
Without any doubt, Madrid and Barcelona are two of Spain’s most dynamic and charming cities. However, if you’re coming to Spain with the intention of learning Spanish and immersing yourself in culture as a whole, there are an endless number of towns, big and small, each with their own unique charm and worth visiting. From the southern province of Andalusia and its Moorish-influenced architecture to Galicia and its Celtic tradition wedged in the northwestern corner, Spain is a country that is ripe for exploration and history.
Madrid is located within the direct center of the country, making it favourable for travel to the different autonomous communities within Spain. As the largest city in Spain, it’s also extremely well-connected with countless busses, trains and flights that make it easy to travel wherever your heart desires. Some of the most popular destinations in Spain such as Salamanca, Toledo, Segovia and Avila are all within short driving distance from Madrid.
Conversely, Barcelona is in the northeastern corner of the country. It’s still relatively well-connected with a number of busses and trains, although it doesn’t live up to the lofty standards set by Madrid. Travelling to other parts of Spain will be a lot more lengthy, and often costly, and only one high-speed train runs through the city. Barcelona does have a fantastic international airport, however, and this may be your best bet when it comes to travelling.
While classes or formal instruction are surely a crucial aspect of learning a new language, these services can be costly, time-consuming and not always the most engaging. If you’re planning to work during your stay, it’s a great way to use your Spanish with everyday people in everyday situations. Talk about true immersion!
Depending on the type of job you’re looking for, both Spanish and Catalan are essential skills for employers across Barcelona. Despite this, however, English has also become a highly-prized skill for businesses that cater towards the city’s large international population. This means means that English is always in demand at establishments such as hotels, restaurants, pubs, schools and call centres. This could be an ideal entry into Spanish culture as you develop your language skills.
In Madrid, the financial crisis about a decade ago led to the loss of jobs for many expats. While things have been on the upswing in recent years, in general the economy is still recovering. Madrid certainly receives its share fair of tourism as well, but it is much more Spanish-focused than Barcelona. At the same time, the metropolis is one of infinite opportunities that houses the headquarters for many of Spain’s biggest companies, financial institutions and global trade shows.
Attractions & Nightlife
Learning a language stretches far beyond just grammar, syntax and vocabulary. Ultimately it involves being ingrained in the local culture, understanding the history of the region and why the people think the way they do. Attractions are a crucial element to uncovering what makes each city unique.
Barcelona is very much focused on Catalan culture. Famed architect Antoni Gaudí left his mark throughout the city with some of Spain’s most visited sites such as La Sagrada Familia and Parc Güell. The personal museums for famed painters such as Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso rest in Catalonia, while festivals such as La Mercè are a celebration of Catalan culture.
Madrid offers classical architecture that exudes a feeling of royalty. The Prado Museum once housed the royal court’s prestigious collection of art, including the masterpieces of Spain’s most monumental artists such as Diego Velázquez and Francisco Goya. Popular Spanish culture takes place here in the form of the tradition of bullfighting. Comprised of 21 districts, Madrid is a city that’s also well-known for its vibrant and modern nightlife that doesn’t stop until the sun has risen.
Ultimately, Madrid might be for you if you enjoy the hustle and bustle of city life, don’t mind the changing seasons and prefer to immerse yourself in popular Spanish culture. Barcelona might be a better choice for you if you prefer a more cosmopolitan and international vibe, don’t mind being immersed in Catalan culture and enjoy living near the sea and beach. No matter where you go, as long as you’re dedicated to learning throughout the entire cultural and linguistic experience.